Maniac was one of the more controversial titles to emerge from the 1980s. Bill Lustig’s psychological horror film walks the line between madness and sanity, all playing out within the mind of a serial killer. Much like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Maniac tells the story of a murderer haunted by the lingering control from a deceased matriarchal figure. When it hit theatres in 1980, it was met with both controversy and acclaim. While it was well received by fans, there were more than a few who had issues with its content. Critic Gene Siskel walked out before it ended, and several objected to the graphic depictions of violence towards women. Despite this, Maniac has garnered a well-deserved following, and a permanent place in history as a cult classic.
One of the unique aspects of Maniac is the time period and location in which it takes place. In 1980, New York remained traumatized by the infamous ‘Son of Sam’ murders. David Berkowitz was eventually apprehended, and imprisoned for the crimes. For a brief period, fear gripped the city, and many dreaded where the killer might strike next. Berkowitz chose victims at random and had no connection with one another. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maniac took inspiration from some of the killings, and brought them to life on the screen. One of these was the double homicide of Donny Lauria and Judy Valenti, gunned down in their car outside a popular nightclub. Lustig’s guerilla style approach to shooting greatly accentuates the films gritty realism. One might even make the argument that it’s a case of art imitating life. Needless to say, any New Yorker might have felt uneasy leaving a theatre showing Maniac at night, as it would have reminded them of the Berkowitz’ killing spree.
Some of the greatest horror leads are memorable, perplexing, and induce an emotion response from the audience. Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, and Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, just to name a few. The lead in Maniac is a tortured individual named Frank Zito. Much like Norman Bates, he’s tormented by his memories of an overbearing mother. Much like Rooker’s portrayal of Henry Lee Lucas, he’s someone to be frightened of, but also captivated by. Renowned character actor Joe Spinell portrays Zito. His performance is not only memorable; it carries the entirety of the film. Zito is deranged, damaged, and yet somehow sympathetic. He lives a stark existence of isolation, attaching the scalps of his victims onto mannequins that serve as his only company. Spinell demonstrates his natural charisma as an actor throughout the film’s duration. His performance is genuinely unnerving, and he projects the outward appearance of a social deviant. When he speaks to the inanimate objects, one gets the feeling they’re not only witnessing the actions of a psychopath, but someone who is completely separated from reality. While some of his actions in the city mirror Berkowitz, his behavior at home feels closer to Ed Gein.
As the film’s co-writer, Spinell was an integral part in Zito’s creation. He completely transforms himself into the character, and gives the best performance of his career. Considering the movie’s time and setting, there was no one else that could have accomplished this but Spinell. At this point in his career, he had mainly been a bit player in mainstream movies such as The Godfather, Cruising, and Taxi Driver. Generally relegated to roles that fit his persona as a husky Italian-American, he wasn’t exactly thought of as leading man material. He had also starred in low budget flicks such as Starcrash, which also featured Maniac co-star Caroline Munro. Spinell was able to utilize his natural talent to make his performance more believable. Spinell wasn’t just an actor from New York, he WAS New York.
The introduction of Munro’s character as a potential love interest brings out Zito’s latent humanity. Furthering the empathy the audience feels for him, there’s a deeply rooted desire to watch him go clean, and overcome his psychosis. Munro and Spinell have good onscreen chemistry, which makes it even more tragic when he succumbs to compulsion. It’s the third act of the film that fully reveals how much his mental illness and his upbringing control him. The fact that his victims are female lends to ultimately incurable weakness. He’s unable to move past the scars his mother has left, so he simply lashes out, using his victims as a substitute. Deep down inside, Zito is just a frightened child, lashing out at world.
It’s been almost four decades since Maniac made its grindhouse debut. Although it reflects the time period, it still holds up today. No matter what arguments one can make regarding its form and content, one thing’s for certain: it’s easily one of the darkest performances ever given by an underrated actor.